This weekend I led several dozen women in trying lectio divina for the first time. Having that experience while also reading T.M. Luhrmann’s fascinating new book When God Talks Back prompted me to ask: What do Christians mean when we say we receive guidance from God?
Lectio divina, like many spiritual practices both ancient and modern, is a way to train the mind and heart to listen more closely to God. We cut out distractions; we listen and ask and then listen some more. Like many other spiritual practices, lectio is hard. Our minds wander. As we pray, we wonder who is listening on the other end of the line. And then—eureka!—a moment of epiphany: we have discerned God’s voice in the cacophony.
But what really happens in this interaction? In When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University undertakes “the problem of presence”—how, exactly, God becomes real for a believer. Luhrmann walks a tricky line throughout the book. She tries to remain agnostic on the question of whether people actually do hear from God, preferring instead to focus on what they say they experience, and how they train themselves to listen for God’s voice.
This weekend’s New York Times Book Review called When God Talks Back “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years.” I’m inclined to agree. In fact, I’d wager that it’s the William James study of our time. But the NYTBR focused primarily on how this book has a chance to bridge the ever-widening gap between people of faith and secularists, rather than on what interests me most: what people of faith can learn about themselves.
This seems to be the main question nagging Luhrmann as well, because for all of the professionalism and sophistication (and surprising humor and literary elegance) of this book, it’s clear Luhrmann has a personal stake in this fight. She doesn’t sit by passively as her research subjects hold prayer meetings; she jumps in. She doesn’t merely read about other people trying St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises; she wades through the practices herself. She even admits to having had one rather bizarre spiritual vision in the past, which I found brazen (p. 191).
And here is the gist of what her research uncovers: Learning to discern God’s voice is an emotional enterprise, yes, but it also requires an enormous amount of uphill cognitive work. The evangelical Christians she studies “solve the problem of presence with specific faith practices,” all of which involve some kind of prayer. Her research suggested that some people, in fact, become experts at prayer:
…there might be a real psychological skill to responding to prayer. . . these reported changes were not just pious assertions that people learned to say so that they could appear to be more devout. It suggested that as people develop the skill, something changes about the way they use their minds. (p. 134)
Prayer practice, she finds, is “really training in the skill of absorption,” a fundamental element of hearing God’s voice. (p. 202) Whether absorption is learned through the age-old practice of lectio divina or the therapeutic God of The Purpose-Driven Life doesn’t matter; these are signposts to the transcendent, not destinations in their own right. Touchingly, Luhrmann notes on the final page that like pilgrims of old, she did not leave her journey unchanged:
…in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity….I remember the morning it dawned on me that the concept of redemption from sin is important, for example, because we can never really trust that we are loved until we know that we are loved with our faults….I came to call my own experience of joy and love, with respect to C.S. Lewis, my furry lion problem. (p. 325)
This blog post is part of a larger conversation about When God Talks Back that's taking place on Patheos.com as part of their Book Club Roundtable. Click here for reviews and blurbs, information about the book, and the transcript of a live chat with author T.M. Luhrmann.